Boom Time in the Big Sky

Once upon a time, in a place far, far away, times were hard. There were lots of mountains and a big, beautiful sky — but, alas, not much industry or farmland. Not many jobs, or people, either.

Then, all of a sudden (almost), things began to change for the better. Oil was discovered. And the oil boom brought jobs and people and wealth.

But it brought something else, too. It brought crime. It attracted thieves and murderers who also heard about the boom — and lowered it on their victims.

This little fable is, of course, not a fable at all. It is the story of what has been going on lately in Montana. The name is Spanish for mountain; the state’s nickname is the Big Sky Country. And there were always plenty of both to bring people to the state to tour them and behold them.

But there wasn’t much else. Montana is ranked fourth in size, but 44th in population and 48th in population density of the 50 United States. Per capita personal income in 2010 was $32,149, 46th in the nation.

In the last few years, however, the Bakken oil patch has brought in people looking for jobs and for quick money, not necessarily of a legal type. More than 20,000 people have poured into eastern Montana and western North Dakota since oil production took off in 2008. Tens of thousands more are expected in the next several years.

According to FBI figures, violent crime in the four counties of the Bakken patch has soared 64 percent and property crimes 63 percent between 2009 and 2012. The economy of Montana is booming; and so is crime. Jails are overflowing. As sheriff, Freedom Crawford of Montana’s Roosevelt County said of the sudden criminal insourcing (up 855 percent in his jurisdiction), “I don’t have nowhere to put them.”

Most of the good folks of Bakken — old-timers and new arrivals — are not to blame. They’re just trying to make a living and thankful for the chance. Nor was there any practical way to prevent undesirables from joining the influx. A boom, by definition, is not amenable to regulation or control. The attraction of the opportunity for sudden riches is powerful. It is a wild thing, like the West used to be, and is again.

But that doesn’t mean that Sheriff Crawford and his neighbors should be surprised at what’s happened. It was always like this.

The California Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Rush, to mention just two of the most famous, were characterized by a manic migration of prospectors, speculators and all manner of unscrupulous types, ready to do almost anything — from “claim-jumping” to murder — to make their fortune. Montana has its own history of gold fever, too, in the boomtowns of Garrison and Virginia City, in the mid-1800s.

But what were they to do? The Bakken patch contains hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, made more accessible recently by the technological advance known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That development could not have been predicted.

But once the word got out — and it’s hard to be discreet about striking oil, black gold — it was bound to change things real quickly. Maybe the local authorities should have begun hiring more law enforcement personnel and expanding their correctional facilities with the first gusher.

Now they’re playing catchup. Police and sheriff’s departments have stepped up hiring, but often not fast enough to meet the challenge. In Dickinson, Montana, for example, where the population has surged to some 25,000 from 16,000 in 2000, the local police force is planning a parallel expansion from 38 to 50 officers. In the meantime, the Wild West is back, with a vengeance.

Don’t misunderstand. We are glad that America’s energy production capacity has increased dramatically over the past few years, which translates into more jobs and people to fill the big spaces of Montana. It also means less dependency on the Arab oil-producing countries, a genuine national security consideration.

Furthermore, though the Torah is replete with cautions about wealth — from “Yeshurun waxed fat and kicked” (Devarim 32:15) to “Increase wealth, increase worry” (Avos 2:8) — we are certainly not against wealth per se.

On the contrary, wealth — when used properly — can be a blessing. With it, one can fulfill many mitzvos: support one’s own family, help the poor and the sick, build batei knesses and batei medrash.

But, as the experience of the Montanans these days shows, wealth is a mixed blessing. With riches comes a sometimes desperate grasping; with money comes crime.

In a nation where the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence has been replaced by a reckless pursuit of wealth and materialistic desires, this lesson is a most important one to keep in mind.